I’m pretty picky when it comes to music. I don’t listen to new bands too much, and it takes me a long time to get interested in a group before I’ll start buying their albums. Even then, it’s likely that only one or two of their albums will make it into my rotation.
There are a lot of bands, then, that I simply don’t listen to. There are a small number of bands that I just don’t like, and that’s what I’m here to talk to you about today – the albums I listen to (and even love) by bands that I don’t particularly care for.
Poison. Anthrax. Mötley Crüe.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these bands, but I just never got into them in a big way. Each had a few songs here and there that I liked, but never enough to buy an album or go see in concert.
Poison had a good singer (Brett Michaels) and guitarist (CC Deville), but they were too far out on the pop edge for me to be interested in their music. Anthrax was huge at a time I wasn’t particularly into thrash metal, but to be perfectly honest, I just couldn’t get into the way their singer (Joey Belladonna) did his thing. With Mötley Crüe, it was more them than their music; I was just not into notorious drug users and people who seemed to revel in their excess. I’m definitely not a fan of their singer (Vince Neil) in either his singing abilities or his personal life. I’ve been touched too closely by death at the hands of a drunk driver to ever really give Neil a chance, seeing as how he killed somebody while driving drunk. Plus I think we can all agree that the production on their first couple of albums was abysmal.
What’s significant about each of these bands is that they had an album (or in Anthrax’s case, four) with a replacement. Mötley Crüe parted ways with Neil in favor of John Corabi. Corabi stayed with the band from 1992 through 1996, recording one album titled Mötley Crüe. CC Deville left (or was fired from) Poison in 1991; he continued to struggle with drug and alcohol addictions even after his restoration a decade later. Richie Kotzen replaced Deville for the band’s 1993 album Native Tongue and one tour, but left after becoming romantically involved with the drummer’s fiancé. Anthrax fired Joey Belladonna in 1992, replacing him with John Bush. The band came back in 1993 with their album Sound of White Noise and continued with Bush as their singer until he left the band in 2005.
In each of these instances, there’s something about the altered chemistry of the respective bands with the swap of just one member that knocks it out of the park.
With Mötley Crüe, Corabi snaps off the polished edges of the band, leaving behind something that is surprisingly fierce and raw. Suddenly Tommy Lee is pounding the drums with passion and a rock-solid sense of timing. Mick Mars’ guitar work has the power and depth of a towering guitar giant. Even Nikki Sixx comes across as a thundering bassist, locked into the grooves and pushing the songs forward in a way that “Girls, Girls, Girls” never could.
Bush does exactly the opposite for Anthrax, rising up from the raw edginess of the Belladonna years, pulling the guitars of Dan Spitz and Scott Ian into a cohesive, blistering collective. Charlie Benante’s drums – well, they don’t really change. He plays the way he plays, and so does Frankie Bello on the bass. There’s a change in attitude and tone – a band that’s always been on the cusp of bitterness turns that into anger and power.
The biggest change in all of these instances is the substitution of Richie Kotzen for CC Deville in Poison. When this happened back in 1992, the hair metal world was stunned and everybody wondered how long it would last. Nobody figured it would be a lover’s triangle that caused the destruction, everybody figured it would be musical incompatibility in the long run that did them in. The one album Poison recorded with Kotzen sounds so unlike their previous albums that it’s like listening to a completely different band. Not that Deville was a slouch as a guitarist, but Kotzen was more than just another guitar slinger – he was (is) a serious musician with serious chops. It was a transformation that made Brett Michaels into a voice to be taken seriously – a singer who could do pop and serious rock as well. Drummer Rikki Rocket and bass player Bobby Dall found themselves with a newfound sense of being taken seriously as instrumentalists, something that surprised a lot of people – especially me.
Let’s start with Poison’s Native Tongue album. It was the band’s fourth album, released in February 1993, and produced by Richie Zito. Native Tongue produced two popular singles, “Stand” and “Until You Suffer Some Fire and Ice,” both of which charted in the US and the UK with varying levels of success.
The overall pace of Native Tongue is slower, more languid and more … swampy than Poison’s previous offerings. There’s more focus on difficult emotions, injustice, and every person’s fight to stay afloat. Thought still primarily a guitar-driven album, the instrumentation expanded to include mandolin, piano and dobro. Kotzen’s soulful backing vocals prove a gritty foil to Michaels’ smoothness – not unlike the lead/backing vocal duos of Jon Bon Jovi/Richie Sambora and Gary Cherone/Nuno Bettencourt (of Extreme).
The riffs across the album are more complex and introduce influences from other genres, such as funk, R&B/soul, and even jazz. The songs demand to be taken seriously, and Kotzen’s guitar playing can’t be ignored as the force behind it all. This isn’t to say that Poison abandons fun – they still sing about getting laid, partying, and rock and roll.
Standout tracks from Native Tongue include “Stand,” “Body Talk,” “Bring It Home,” “Theater of the Soul” (a stellar power ballad akin to “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”), and “Ride Child Ride,” but there isn’t a truly bad song on the disc. The closest they come to the pre-Kotzen Poison sound is “Ain’t That the Truth,” and even then the resemblance is fleeting. The inclusion of a brief acoustic guitar instrumental seems indulgent, and “Richie’s Acoustic Thing” is the one track that could have been dumped without negatively affecting the flow of the album.
Notably, Native Tongue was the last Poison album to go Gold (certified 500,000 sales) in the US and Platinum in Canada (just 80,000 copies). These sales levels are nothing compared to Open Up and Say Ah! (1988), which went five times Platinum in the US (5 million sold) and Look What the Cat Dragged In (1986), which was a triple-Platinum-selling album, as was their 1990 disc, Flesh & Blood.
Poison replaced Kotzen with guitar phenom Blues Saraceno, but the two new songs on their 1996 greatest hits compilation (which featured only “Stand” from Native Tongue) didn’t have the same tension as when Kotzen was in the band. The 2000 album with Saraceno wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great, either. Deville came back for the band’s 2002 album and his return has (so far) proven permanent. Poison is back to its lighter, fun fare, and the band hasn’t regularly played any songs from this album in its concerts since Kotzen left the band. By 1999, they were on a steady diet of the songs from their first two albums, and even on the tour after the album with Saraceno, they barely played any songs that weren’t from their first two albums.
Anthrax switched singers in 1992, firing Joey Belladonna and pinching John Bush from his interesting – but obscure – band, Armored Saint. Bush’s introduction into the band coincided with Anthrax switching record labels and brought about a change in their general sound. They pulled back from the pure, unadulterated thrash of their early albums as well as the thread of silliness that shot through much of their material. They moved more towards a straight-ahead rock/metal sound, albeit on the heavier end of such a sound.
Sound of White Noise was their first album with Bush and their last with longtime lead guitarist Dan Spitz (who left the band to become a watchmaker – and I’m not kidding about that). It’s the perfect meeting of tone, talent and attitude, and that’s exactly why this album has always resonated deeply with me.
The standout tracks on White Noise are “Only” and “Black Lodge,” of course – the two singles. “Black Lodge” is probably the closest thing Anthrax ever recorded to a ballad, and it’s a smoldering pressure cooker of a song that just seethes with depth and emotion. “Only” is the best song Anthrax ever wrote as far as I’m concerned. Other excellent songs on this disc are “Hy Pro Glo,” “ This Is Not an Exit,” “Room for One More,” and “Packaged Rebellion.” Unlike Poison’s Kotzen album, there’s no goofy acoustic instrumental that could be cut, but they do one thing that drives me crazy; the first full minute of the first track on the album (“Potter’s Field”) is …well, white noise. Static. I get it, it plays in with the album title, but it’s annoying. Too many bands do this, and it’s irritating EVERY time, even more so on a fantastic album.
Bush doesn’t just bring depth to the songs, he brings vocal harmonies as well, something that was either not done or done poorly on previous albums. Bush sings with a gritty style and has a nice, wide range that spans from deep, nearly guttural vocals to near screaming. The drums and bass tones are thick and full, and the twin guitar onslaught of Spitz and Ian feels just on the edge of chaos. What always appealed to me about this album is its more straight-ahead metal feel, rather than the outright punishing thrash of their first few albums. Even when it was Megadeth or Metallica, the thrashiest of songs never appealed to me – think “Damage, Inc.”
Anthrax packed their Bush-era tours with songs from his albums; the tour supporting White Noise featured “Potters Field,” “Room for One More,” “Hy Pro Glo,” “Packaged Rebellion,” “Black Lodge” and the set closer, “Only.” These last two songs would stay in their concert rotation throughout Bush’s time with the band, but disappeared when Belladonna returned to the fold in 2005.
Unlike Poison or Mötley Crüe, though, Bush stayed with Anthrax for another three albums after White Noise. They’re not bad albums by any means, but without Spitz on lead guitar, the bulk of the songwriting falls to Ian, and even with Bush contributing, a certain stagnation comes over the band. Bush later left, then returned, then left again, but Anthrax never captured the spark again like they did with Sound of White Noise. White Noise was the band’s fourth consecutive Gold album, reaching that level in just two months. It was also their last Gold album.
Like with Kotzen joining Poison, John Corabi turned Mötley Crüe into a band to be taken seriously. They tried – and got close – with the 1989 album Dr. Feelgood, which had some darker, deeper tracks, but the eponymous 1994 album with Corabi hits it out of the park. Unfortunately, sales weren’t there to support the much improved musicianship; Dr. Feelgood was a #1 album and sold over 6 million copies, and Mötley Crüe struggled to achieve Gold certification (500,000 sold), debuting at #7 on the US charts but falling from there.
Bob Rock produced both Dr. Feelgood and Mötley Crüe, bringing his polished sensibilities to both records, but he wisely let Crüe go in a much heavier direction than they’d gone before. Corabi shook things up, though, coming to the band as both a lyricist and a guitarist. Bass player Nikki Sixx had pretty much handled all the lyric-writing duties up to that point, with guitarist Mick Mars handling most of the music. Now they had a true collaborator, and it shows; Mötley Crüe has clear influences from Corabi’s previous band, The Scream, and taking the band into more introspective directions and adding a note of social commentary to their songs.
What Corabi brought to the band along with some social awareness was a deeply powerful voice with grit and soul that Neil lacked. Standout tracks on the album are “Power to the Music,” “Uncle Jack,” “Hooligan’s Holiday” (the first single), “Misunderstood” (the 2nd), “Poison Apples,” and “Smoke the Sky.” The album features some truly crushing riffs, showing musical depth and power that isn’t obvious on the band’s other albums.
Corabi participated in one tour that saw the band start in an arena and finish at a house party. There’s the typical blame placed on record labels failing to support/promote the band (and that has a sense of truth in this instance – Elektra, their label, was in the midst of a CEO changeover in 1994). There’s some fan backlash, of course, with many saying Crüe without Neil isn’t Crüe at all. Don’t forget, too, that grunge was on the upswing and metal was quickly being marginalized. Number-one albums in 1994 included Superunknown (Soundgarden), Nirvana’s unplugged album, and Vitalogy (Pearl Jam), along with a smattering of pop and hip-hop albums. The soundtrack for The Lion King was the top-selling album of the year.
The previous year wasn’t much better for metal; 1993’s top-selling album was Whitney Houston’s soundtrack album for her movie with Kevin Costner, The Bodyguard. Nirvana and Pearl Jam showed up at #1, as did U2, Aerosmith, Billy Joel and Garth Brooks. Kind of a depressing year for metal, actually.
At any rate, Corabi fired himself from Mötley Crüe, forcing the rest of the band to admit that the voice their fans wanted to hear was that of Vince Neil. They reinstated the ousted singer, put out the lackluster Generation Swine, which featured two songs co-written by Corabi and one co-written by Bryan “Summer of ‘69” Adams. Corabi later claimed he should have gotten more songwriting credits and royalties for the material on the album and sued the band for a hefty sum, pretty much guaranteeing he’d never get another shot at center stage for Crüe.
Mötley Crüe never played a single song from this album after Corabi left the band. When he was in the band, they added six songs from the album into their set, including the best cuts (“Hooligan’s Holiday,” “Misunderstood,” “Uncle Jack” and “Power to the Music”), but like the other bands discussed here, once he was out of the band, they pretend like his contributions never existed.
There’s something to be said for injecting new blood into an old body, and certainly Poison, Anthrax and Mötley Crüe proved that doing so could inspire them to produce some of the best music they’d ever recorded. One of the big differences between these three bands is that Anthrax fans embraced John Bush as the singer, while Poison and Mötley Crüe fans seemed to largely turn their backs on the bands during these one-album forays with other band members, seemingly without regard to the elevated quality of the music produced on these discs. It’s a shame, really, because of the three albums discussed here, Native Tongue is easily the most accessible and, led by its stellar single “Stand,” could have been a monster hit for the band. Mötley Crüe is easily the band’s most metal album, and Sound of White Noise signaled a tonal shift for Anthrax that should have widened their appeal outside the usual thrash/punk circles.